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Can Apple Get Away with “Funness”?

And what about “renanoing”? What is Apple doing with language?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
January 24, 2013
Episode #353

Can Apple Get Away with “Funness”?

I was looking at the Apple website today, and I noticed they’re doing some interesting things with language again. The company that brought us the “think different” campaign and “the funnest iPod ever” is at it again, plugging the “funness” of the new iPod and how they’ve “renanoed” the new iPod nano..

“Fun,” Funnest,” “Funness”

First, let’s talk about “fun.” Back in 2008, when Steve Jobs announced that Apple had made the funnest iPod ever, I talked about how everyone accepts “fun” as a noun, but some people don’t accept “fun” as an adjective.

Nobody objects to a sentence such as “We had fun,” in which “fun” is a noun. It’s just like saying “We had cookies,” or “We had cake,” but some people object to “fun” in sentences like “Today was a fun day,” where “fun” is being used as an adjective like “happy” or “sad.” You could say “Today was a happy day,” or “Today was a sad day,” or “Today was a fun day,” and in those cases, “happy,” “sad,” and “fun” are all modifying the word “day.” 

Attributive Nouns: My Party Was Funner, but Your Box Isn’t Hatter

An interesting point that I didn’t mention before is that nouns can act like adjectives without actually being adjectives, and when they do, we call them attributive nouns. For example, when you look up “tree” or “hat” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it doesn’t say anything about the words being adjectives; but in sentences such as “We went to a tree farm,” and “Get my hat box,” “tree” and “hat” are attributive nouns acting like adjectives. “Tree” is modifying “farm” and “hat” is modifying “box.”

 Neal Whitman just mentioned to me in passing a couple of days ago that it was through this kind of attributive noun use that “fun” slipped from being a noun to an adjective.

Also, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “fun” as a noun shows that “fun” can be used in these kinds of compounds such as “funfest,” “fun-fair,” and “fun run.” (1)

That’s how we got from “fun” as a noun to “fun” as an at least partially acceptable adjective, and once you have an adjective, people are going to want to inflect it—to use it for comparisons such as “funner” and “funnest”—and whether those forms exist is one way you can tell whether you have an attributive noun or an adjective. You can say today was a sadder day than yesterday because “sad” is an adjective, but you can’t say that my box is hatter than your box because “hat” is an attributive noun. It’s not an adjective, so it doesn’t have those inflected forms.

Getting to “Funness”

“Funner” and “funnest,” although definitely not acceptable for formal or serious writing, have become acceptable and common enough that they’re included in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. On the other hand, “funness” isn’t included and, to me at least, it sounds stranger than “funnner” and “funnest,” so maybe that’s why the Apple marketers decided to use it in their new promotions and say the new iPod was engineered for maximum funness—it stands out more because it’s still unusual.

The “-ness” suffix, however, is just building on “fun” as an adjective. “-ness” is a suffix that we add to adjectives all the time to convey the idea of a state or condition. (2) The thing that seems especially funny to me here is that when we add the “-ness” suffix to an adjective, we turn it back into a noun. The adjective “sad” becomes the noun “sadness”; the adjective “happy” becomes the noun “happiness”; and so on. If you accept “fun” as an adjective, “funness” is a natural extension, but they’re starting with a word that some people say can only be a noun, and then using it controversially as an adjective, and then turning it back into a noun with the “-ness” suffix.

Anyway, note again how adding the “-ness” suffix is a sign that we’re starting with an adjective and not a noun. We wouldn’t usually talk about something’s “treeness” or “ hatness,” or at least if we did, we’d be calling attention to the word because it sounds unusual.

They’ve “Renanoed” the iPod Nano.

Now, let’s think about the other strange word being highlighted on the Apple site. It says they’ve “renanoed” the iPod nano.

I tried to think of parallels, and the best one I came up with was “reengineered.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that we get the verb “to engineer” from the noun “engineer.” In other words, “engineer” started out as a noun, like “nano,” and later people started using it as a verb. It looks like people were using “engineer” as a noun as far back as the 1300s, and people only started using “engineer” as a verb in the 1700s.

I often hear people saying they don’t like it when other people verbify nouns, but it’s actually quite a common way we get new words. “Microwave” is another example. First we had the product—the noun, the microwave—in 1972, and a few years later, in 1976, people were talking about microwaving their food. (3)*

Trademarks Are Adjectives

The especially interesting thing to me about Apple using “renanoed” is that companies usually don’t want their brand names turned into nouns or verbs because it weakens their trademark. “Escalator,” “Xerox,” and “Kleenex” are a few examples of trademarks that became weakened when too many people started using them as nouns, and the International Trademark Association says companies should “never use a trademark as a verb.” (4)

Trademarks are supposed to be adjectives that modify nouns. For example, Apple’s trademark page explains that it’s fine to say you bought two two Macintosh computers because the trademark “Macintosh” is being used as an adjective to modify the noun “computers,” but you aren’t suppose to use “Macintosh” as a noun and say you bought two Macintoshes. (5)

The phrase “iPod nano” is a registered trademark (6), so technically, you should say that you love your iPod nano mobile digital device, but obviously, there’s a conflict between what lawyers recommend companies do to protect their trademarks and what marketers want to do to get attention and sell products, and it looks like the marketers definitely won this round with their “renanoed” campaign.

It seems to me that it’s more common for a trademark to become a generic noun, like “zipper” and “thermos,” but it’s not unheard of for them to become generic verbs too. In Britain, they talk about Hoovering their floors (referencing Hoover vacuums), I’ve heard people talk about Skyping each other, and most famously, the trademark “Google” is often used as a verb when people say things such as “Let me Google that for you.”

Should You Capitalize “Google” as a Verb?

As an ending note, I’ll add that people often ask whether they should capitalize “Google” when they use it as a verb. It’s up to you. Dictionaries list it both ways, but the company would rather you capitalize it for trademark reasons, and the Chicago Manual of Style (7) and the AP Stylebook (8) also both recommend capitalizing it.

iPod and iPod nano are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.

*People may have been using these words in speech sooner. These dates are the first recorded uses in the Oxford English Dictionary.

References

1. “fun,” Oxford English Dictionary, online version. December 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/75467? (accessed January 24, 2013).
2. “-ness,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online version. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/-ness (accessed January 24, 2013).
3. “microwave,” Oxford English Dictionary, online version. December 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/118111?
4. “Trademark Use,” International Trademark Association websitehttp://www.inta.org/TrademarkBasics/FactSheets/Pages/TrademarkUseFactSheet.aspx
5. “Guidelines for Using Apple Trademarks and Copyrights,” Apple website, http://www.apple.com/legal/trademark/guidelinesfor3rdparties.html (accessed January 24, 2013).
6. “Apple Trademark List,” Apple website, http://www.apple.com/legal/trademark/appletmlist.html (accessed January 24, 2013).
7. “Registered Trademarks,” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/RegisteredTrademarks/faq0001.html (accessed January 24, 2013)
8. “Google,” AP Stylebook, The Associated Press. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=3906&src=AE (accessed January 24, 2013).

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